The four main challenges that lie ahead for Joan Laporta as president of Barça
Eye-watering levels of debt, the ageing squad, the future of Leo Messi, and club infrastructure will cause immediate concerns for the new board
By a considerable margin, after gaining far above 50% of the total vote share, Joan Laporta has been elected the new president of FC Barcelona.
A total of 30,184 club members opted for Laporta from 51,765 people who took part in the election, slightly under half of the total eligible voters.
In his typical trademark swagger, the new leader of the club in crisis popped the champagne, sang, and danced late into the evening, reclaiming the most powerful position in football in Catalonia which he last held between 2003 and 2010.
🙌 Baaaarça, Baaaarça, Baaaaarça!!! 😍 pic.twitter.com/7B2kXc9icc— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona_cat) March 7, 2021
Once the celebrating is done, however, Laporta has a huge task on his hands. The charismatic lawyer walks into the highest office in the Camp Nou at possibly one of the worst times to take up the job.
Debts are mounting to eye-watering levels, the first-team squad is in desperate need of refreshment, club captain and perhaps the greatest player to ever grace the sport attempted to force an exit for free last summer and is out of contract at the end of this campaign, while club infrastructure is in desperate need of refurbishment.
Amidst these challenges, the pandemic is still ongoing, causing huge losses to the club with no fans allowed in stadiums, while merchandise sales and museum visits have gone dramatically down with the lack of tourism across the globe.
With that, we examine the four biggest challenges that lie in store for Joan Laporta for the coming six years.
Undoubtedly, one of the most pressing concerns for the new president is the debt levels that have risen to enormous heights over the past couple of years, exacerbated by the pandemic stopping much of the income streams.
In January 2021, it was revealed that the debts at FC Barcelona were even more catastrophic than what was first reported some months prior. Under the previous regime, financial forecasts for the upcoming year took for granted that stadiums would be able to host fans at 25% capacity from December 2020 and 100% by February 2021 - a situation far from reality. As such, Barça’s short-term debts that they need to pay off this year stand at around €420 million. Total debts surpass €1 billion.
The new president will have a number of ways of working out a solution to this immediate problem. Almost certainly, the debt will need to be refinanced in some way, negotiating a loan with banks or some sort of deal with the creditors.
Additionally, some players could be sold to raise funds. This is often one of the quickest ways to generate money, but the football transfer market is severely hampered by the pandemic as clubs don’t have the same money to spend as before. Many of Barça’s big stars are on huge contracts and will be very difficult to find buyers for, as shown by the numerous attempts to move Ivan Rakitic on over the past couple of years, and by Bartomeu’s decision to effectively pay Luis Suárez to play for Atletico Madrid.
One of the most important elements for fans is to retain the ownership structure of the club. FC Barcelona is owned by its ‘socis’ - club members - and therefore cannot be purchased by a wealthy investor who may not be emotionally attached to the club in the same way.
All three of the presidential candidates spoke of the importance of keeping the current ownership model in place, a model beloved by the fans where they elect presidents themselves, despite the fact that an alteration could provide some short-term economic relief. If the structure was changed, there would be no more Barça presidential elections.
The vast majority of culers would prefer to slowly rebuild with their ‘socis’ model protected than sell to a wealthy owner who could immediately inject cash into the club.
The financial situation at the club is so grave that in a December interview, the club interim president Carles Tusquets admitted that “economically speaking, it would have made sense to sell Messi” last summer to soothe the monetary difficulties.
Leo Messi claimed that former president Bartomeu broke a promise to the player last summer by stepping in and blocking his exit from the club. Had Bartomeu not done that, we almost certainly would be watching the Argentine play in a different club’s jersey this season.
“Twenty years ago a little boy called Leo Messi made his debut with Barca’s youth team. Seeing the best player in the world come out to vote today is a clear sign of what we keep saying. Leo loves Barça.” Laporta’s charm offensive on the superstar began immediately in some of the first words he gave publicly after winning the election.
🔥 The captain of the first team, Leo Messi, exercises his right to vote at the Camp Nou 🔥 pic.twitter.com/oiPVRcQHtl— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 7, 2021
The club captain’s contract runs out at the end of this campaign, which means Messi can go for free to any club he wants to this summer. He can already start negotiating a potential deal with clubs outside of Spain. Joan Laporta has a decision to make as to how he approaches the Messi situation.
In one of his videos released during the campaign, the then-presidential candidate is seen speaking to a headless mannequin wearing a number 10 Barcelona Messi, telling him he’ll make him an offer he won’t be able to refuse. What that offer comprises is yet to be seen, as Messi appears from the outside to have reached a point in his career where he wants to be convinced of the wider sporting project going on at the Camp Nou, as opposed to only being offered unimaginable millions of euros to stay.
It will be part of Laporta’s responsibilities to convince Messi that there is something beyond money worth staying in Catalonia for. The new president could be brought crashing back down to earth as early as his first game at the helm, a midweek clash against Paris Saint Germain in the knockout stages of the Champions League. One of the nouveau riche of European football, PSG made their first Champions League final last season and bring a 4-1 lead into the second leg of this tie, where they will be keen to rub Barça’s faces into a humiliating final result.
Barça look significantly off the pace compared to Europe’s best at the moment, and despite the emerging young talent in the blaugrana ranks, it will be a very difficult task to get back to the summit.
3. Squad management
Another huge stumbling block between the club and their next Champions League success is the squad makeup and the bumper contracts they’re on. The past couple of years have brought huge question marks over whether some of the ageing personnel can still perform at the level required.
After the 2-8 destruction at the hands of Bayern Munich last year, the previous board named a very small selection of the squad as “untouchable,” indicating everyone bar those players could be sold, before very shortly afterwards selling one of those “untouchable” players - Nelson Semedo to Wolves. There is, or at least was, a recognition within the club that while the likes of Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, and others may have enough left in the tank to win domestically, but there’s not the same certainty around these players that they can deliver European success again.
On top of this, many of their ageing stars are earning huge amounts of money that would be very difficult for other clubs to justify matching even if they wanted the services of any of these players. On the players’ side - why would they leave if they’re earning so much money and have a contract in place for years to come?
Over the past couple of years, the club has had to make do with cutting losses on some of these players whose values were believed to be moving into negative equity - Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal were let go last summer for next to nothing. Ultimately this is a problem born from poor squad management over an extended period of time, but it will provide plenty of headaches for Laporta as he tries to lower the overall wage structure of the club.
4. Club infrastructure
In December, interim president Carles Tusquets gave an interview in which he explained that there are parts of the Camp Nou literally falling apart. The caretaker stressed the need to repair damages, as over the past year some pieces of the ceiling have already fallen at some entrances to the stadium.
Urgent work needs to be done on the training facilities as well, also falling into similar levels of disrepair. The Palau Blaugrana, the events center beside the Camp Nou which hosts the club’s basketball, handball, hockey, and futsal matches, has also been earmarked for restoration for years. The nearly 8,000-seater arena is planned to be knocked down and rebuilt at some stage, but plans to carry out this operation feel far away with all of the short-term worries the club has.
Refurbishing the club infrastructure is partly an immediate concern and partly something that can be kept on the long finger. If the club had been in a position to, the past year would have been the perfect time to carry out the necessary works, as fans have not been able to attend any game in the Camp Nou anyway. Real Madrid and Levante are two other La Liga teams who have taken the opportunity the pandemic has provided to redo their home grounds.
Intertwining of problems
Yet, the financial situation has impeded on the plans to repair the stadium. Indeed, all four of these main challenges for Laporta are intertwined with each other in various ways.
The debts and poor finances will impact the sporting project that can be presented to Messi to convince him to stay. The need to refresh the squad and the difficulty in doing so is further hampering the debts and financial situation. The works that must be carried out on club facilities will cost significant money. Despite the fact that Messi represents much more than just a singular player to FC Barcelona and its fans, it may have made sense in purely financial terms to have negotiated his sale last year, although this would have enraged fans.
Regardless, if the club hierarchy were to weigh up the possibility of life without Messi now, it would be impossible to get a transfer fee for him as he will soon be out of contract, rendering the option much less attractive from a financial perspective.
Nobody knows yet when fans will be able to return to Camp Nou, and when tourism can return to something similar to previous levels, but both will be hugely welcome to the finances department under Joan Laporta as the new president aims to pull off a miracle over the coming years.